The Cotton Ships collective
Cotton Ships is a band made up of five members, but if you ever spend any time with them, it feels like a lot more. The band consists of four SMC students: lead singer and band founder Kenny Chesler, bass player Michael Cagliata, guitar player and occasional saxophonist Evan Ho, and vocalist Kaiya Crawford. The drummer is Elliot Lowell, who doesn’t go to SMC.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a chance to spend time getting to know the band and the family they’ve created while spending time with them in the studio, watching them perform at a venue called WHQ in El Segundo, as well as sitting down with Cagliata and Chesler earlier this week.
“We have a weird system of groupies that hang out with us, or are dating us,” said Cagliata.
“They all sleep with Evan,” said Chesler.
“Yeah, they all sleep with Evan. All of them sleep with Evan,” said Cagliata.
While the size of the band and the band’s following has grown over the past few months, Cotton Ships is Kenny Chesler, in many ways.
He founded the band over a year and a half ago, and is the only member who has been around the whole time.
“[Michael is] actually like our seventh bass player,” said Chesler.
Through all of the turnover, Chesler has stuck with the idea of Cotton Ships for reasons both practical and creative.
“Once you've built that momentum — you build like a fan base — you get to a certain point where it's easier to get shows. It's a lot harder to start from the ground up,” said Chesler. “It's always been sort of a vehicle for songs that I have. Why change the name? At least, going forward, it is my project.”
When you arrive at whatever garage they are recording in that day, it is hard, at first, to tell who is in the band and who isn’t. There are a lot of people around — everyone is participating and multiple people are holding instruments.
As they get ready to record, jokes are still flying, and beers are being dispersed. People enter the garage, get a few jokes off, and then head back inside.
Before long though, you start to identify Chesler as the center of the chaos. And once him and Cagliata start to actually record, there is little that can break their focus.
On this particular day, they are recording in a garage-based studio owned by an older man that they have met along the way. While he was managing the recording earlier, he apparently got frustrated by a lack of professionalism among the band and asked them to leave earlier than expected.
They needed to be out by the end of the night, and they needed to have the rest of their EP recorded by then. Chesler explained this to me and to Cagliata, but neither of them seemed concerned.
As Cagliata records bass tracks — Chesler sitting next to him operating Pro Tools and giving him notes in between takes — what sounds like a loud argument is going on inside. It goes on for at least 15 or 20 minutes, with none of the Cotton Ships members paying it attention. Finally, a loud comment about anti-inflammatory medication breaks Cagliata's focus, prompting him to turn around and make eye contact with me, raising his eyebrows momentarily before returning to his work.
For two people with such musical focus and ambition, Cagliata and Chesler are both pretty casual about their future in music. Despite all of the energy they put into Cotton Ships, Cagliata is currently focused on becoming a psychiatrist, where Chesler is interested in being a teacher.
“The duality of band life versus school life is really hectic in all of our lives,” said Cagliata. “Right now, we're still in the DIY stage where we're booking the shows... Not the kind of thing where we can just live off of it.”
“I could, dude," said Chesler. "I took a gap year and I was just working and playing music, and I was making enough to like, live somewhere. It's either all or nothing. Bands that make it, they're fully committed, because you have to be. It's such a crazy business.”
This impression was furthered when they discussed whether they would rather be a world-famous, Grammy-winning band, or be local legends who have to struggle through the industry for years. While Cagliata started by saying he would take the Grammys, they both had their doubts.
“It depends, because in my mind, I don't know if music is the final thing for me. So it might be cooler to have like that grind. Almost like an outlet, you know. Teacher by day, musician by night,” said Chesler.
“I would probably like the personal respect of the grind, and the local scene loving you,” said Cagliata.
While this current iteration of the band has only been together for a few months, it seems like they’ve known each other for life. They have a chemistry together on stage that seems to come naturally to them.
To echo this, Chesler seemed to feel this was the strongest iteration of the band yet.
“It's more collaborative. I feel everybody musically is on the same page, where it hasn't always been that way. Like everybody knows and is comfortable with the style we're playing. The other times, it's always maybe not been as... we just haven't flowed and been locked in as tight as we are [now],” said Chesler.
And the music seems to be growing with the band.
“I've noticed that the songs just become more intricate. And just, I wanna say, fresh. That's just the word. I don't think we wanna do the same thing twice,” said Cagliata.
Chesler said, “I feel like the songs are getting more complicated and longer, and that might be just us playing together longer, and getting more comfortable. Just having people being really good, being able to stay focused for that long.”
A lot the band's bonding can be traced back to a San Francisco trip they took to a play a few different shows. This was the first time Cagliata played with the band, as their bass player at the time was too busy to make the trip.
Cagliata's first experience with the band didn’t exactly start out with a good omen though. On the way up to San Francisco, he was driving a car with two passengers and got in a horrible accident, with the car flipping off of the side of the road.
By some miracle, everyone in the car was fine. The accident left Cagliata with only a small scar on his thumb and the trip continued as planned.
“The next day, I'm still beaten up and having this existential crisis because I should have died. But I didn't die, so I was just celebrating life. But then the next day, they picked me up and we drove to Santa Cruz and we played this fuckin' show,” said Cagliata.
Cotton Ships is a constantly rotating and changing group, with only Chesler remaining steady at the center. They don’t seem overly concerned with where the band is headed, what genre they are, or who is actually in the band, but with the current formation of the group, they have found a musical chemistry, as well as a dedicated fan base of Redondo Beach moms. For now, maybe that is all they need.